Of Mice And Men An Author for the Common Man

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Of Mice And Men An Author for the Common Man

He is the son of what today would be termed middle class parents, yet John Steinbeck does not use that part of society for much of his highly acclaimed works. His treatment of the common man makes him a uniquely American author of the Twentieth Century. John Steinbeck’s life plays a major role in what he writes which reflects a pessimistic view of America and his sympathy for the poor and oppressed.

The son of John and Olive Steinbeck, John Steinbeck was born and reared in and around the Salinas Valley in California. His father was a county treasurer, his mother a schoolteacher . Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902 in Salinas, California and died on December 20, 1968 in New York, New York (“John” Gale Group Online). His ashes were placed in the Garden of Memories Cemetery in Salinas, California (“John World” 1).

From 1915-1919 Steinbeck attended Salinas High School (“Chronology” 1). Graduating at the top of his class, Steinbeck decided to attend Stanford University as an English major. He pursued a program of independent study where his attendance was sporadic (“John World” 1). While at Stanford, he also studied marine biology, which would have an impact on him later in life (“John World” 1). He left Stanford permanently in 1926 without taking a degree to pursue his writing career. On January 14, 1930 Steinbeck married his first wife, Carol Henning. She became John’s first of three wives (“Chronology” 1). They stayed married for thirteen years until divorcing in early 1943. Gwyn Conger became Steinbeck’s second wife on March 29, 1943. He had two children from this marriage; his first was born on August 2, 1944. The couple named their son Thom. Less than two years later they had their second son, John IV, born on June12, 1946 (“Chronology” 2). Gwyn and John’s romance is short lived as their marriage lasted only five years and they were divorced in 1948. His third and final marriage was on December 29, 1950 to Elaine Scott. Steinbeck remained married to Elaine for the rest of his life (“John” Gale Group Online). Some of the jobs Steinbeck held influenced his works and where he lived at the time. For two years Steinbeck lived and worked with migrants seeking to lend authenticity to his account and to deepen his understanding of their plight (“Overview” Gale Group Online). Steinbeck lived in Lake Tahoe, California and worked as a caretaker for a summer home. In November of 1925 he traveled by freighter from Los Angeles to New York City where he worked as a construction laborer and briefly as a writer for the New York American (“Chronology” 1).

Steinbeck is considered one of the greatest writers of the twentith century. His major work The Grapes of Wrath, was published in 1939. Steinbeck was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the novel in 1940. However, Of Mice and Men is perhaps his most durable. The play-novella gives the reader a glimpse into the lives of migrant farm workers in the 1930’s. The book goes beyond the historical context to striking a universal chard because it appeals to basic human desires. Steinbeck gives the reader the bond of friendships between two main characters, Lennie and George, their dream of security, and their longing for a place to call to home ( Karson 11).

Of Mice and Men was published in 1937 and its only a little more than thirty thousand words. The title of the work was suggested by a friend, Ed Rickets, from the Robert Burns poem “that captures the essence of Rickets’ naturalistic philosophy that man is a victim of farces we cannot control.”

“But, Mousie, thou are no thy lane,

In proving foresight may be vain.

The best laid plans o’mice an’ men

Gang aft a-gley

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain

For promised joy” (22).

The story is of two migrant farm workers and the dream of owning a farm. The novella portrays a series of “powerless characters, all of whom must struggle to maintain their humanity and cultivate their dreams in the faces of overwhelming forces of destruction”” (Bloom 11). In Of Mice and Men Steinbeck employs many elements of figurative and informal language to get across his messages to the reader. One type of figurative language that is used is foreshadowing in chapter one. “George [motions] with his spoon again. Look, Lennie, I want you to look around here. You can remember this place can’t you. The ranch is about a quarter mile up that way just follow the river…I want you to come right here and hide in the brush’ ” (OMM 16). This foreshadows the setting of the end of the book in chapter six. “Lennie [cries] softly, ‘I di’n’t forget you, you bet, … Hide in the brush and wait for George’ ” (110). Another element of figurative language that he uses is symbolism. An example of symbolism is found in chapter two. “Both men [glance] up for the rectangle of sunlight in the doorway [is] cut off. A girl [is] standing there looking in” (OMM 34). It is a common fact that in literature,light is symbolic of goodness and dark is symbolic of evil or bad. So when the girl, in this case, Curley’s wife, blocks the sunlight from the doorway, the reader should realize that something bad will happen in the book that centers around the girl. Imagery is also used in the novella. Steinbeck uses the imagery of a bear to describe Lennie Small. Lennie is a huge man in stature, but as his name implies, small in mental capacity, also somewhat like animals. “…a huge man, shapeless of face, with large pale eyes, with wide sloping shoulders, and he [walks] heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws…Lennie [dabbles] his big paws in the water and [wiggles] his fingers so the water [arises] in little splashes” (OMM 2-3). Steinbeck uses informal language not only to portray the life of the common man, but also because of his belief about life itself. “Though he sometimes [dwells] on the exploitation of modern capitalism, he also [revels] in the simple joys of life and the splendors of nature. Moreover, the awesome compassion infusing his writings [allows] him to simultaneously express anger, sympathy, and sorrow in lyrical and touching language” (Contemporary Classics). In chapter three of Of Mice and Men Slim speaks to George in the informal language used by the book’s characters who are ranch hands. “Oh, I dunno hardly none of the guys ever travel together. I hardly never [see] two guys travel together” (OMM 43).

Just as the language he uses is informal, for the subjects in his works Steinbeck concentrates on the aspects of the common man and/or the migrant worker. His use of the common man includes those with various jobs. The migrant worker is his central subject in Of Mice and Men in the form of George and Lennie and the other workers.

What Steinbeck chooses as his subjects and his use of language is influenced by where he lived historical movements of the time, jobs he had and people he met. “Many of Steinbeck’s novels and stories are set in and around the Salinas Valley in California where he is born and where he holds a variety of jobs prior to his writing career. He often uses this setting to stress his theme of importance of the ‘relationship between man and his environment’ ” (“John”, Gale Group Online). Even though the locale of many of his works is in California, his interests and characters are varied. “Much of Steinbeck’s work [is] rooted in his native state, but his interests [are] universal” (Contemporary Classics). The major historical influence on his work is the Depression and the difficult economic times that surrounded it. “The economic upheavals of the 1930’s [produce] a rootlessness in Americans who [find] themselves without possessions or hope” (Contemporary Classics). Jobs Steinbeck has also influence his works. During his childhood he spends a lot of time on a ranch near King City, south of Salinas. The ranch is owned by relatives of his mother and while in high school he works during the summer in the fields and orchards (Benson 40). Working as one himself influences his choice of migrant workers. “ ‘I [am] a bindle-stiff myself for quite a spell’ he [tells] reporters some years later. ‘I [work] in the same country that the story is laid in.’ Tall and husky he [is] hired as a laborer on a ranch near Chualar, a short distance in miles from the prosperous neighborhood in Salinas where he [is] born and for a time he [becomes] a part of a very different world” (Benson 41). The influences on his life also make an impact on Steinbeck’s choice of dominant themes, two of which are the vanity of human wishes and loneliness. The theme is evident in Of Mice and Men with the characters Lennie and George whose wish is to someday own their own farm and raise rabbits. “Someday we’re gonna get the jack together and we’re gonna have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs and-” (OMM 15). The dream is shattered when Lennie, unaware of his own strength, chokes Curley’s wife and George feels compelled to shoot him in the end of the book. Loneliness is another theme Steinbeck uses. “In Of Mice and Men loneliness is a recurrent theme in the novel, and is articulated in George’s speech that begins: ‘Guys like us, that work on the ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong noplace’ ” (Benson 43). All the workers in the book are just like George and Lennie, ranch hands, who migrate from place to place with no family, or even roots.

Using the subject of the common man and his dreams, the bulk of Steinbeck’s most acclaimed work is in the 1930s. “Steinbeck’s critical favor [begins] to decline during the 1940s and many of his later works [receive] mixed reviews (“John”, Gale Group Online). However critics have praise for his earlier work. “Steinbeck [is] a uniquely American novelist, the critics [contend], but his distrust and anger at society [is] offset by his faith and l ove for the land and its people” (“Overview”, Gale Group Online). Daniel Aaron, a Steinbeck critic, says that he possesses a “special combination of marketable literary talent, sense of historical timing, eye for significant subject, and power of identification” (“Overview”, Gale Group Online). Not all criticism of Steinbeck is good, but in his Nobel Prize address he defends himself, he won the Nobel Prize in 1962 for Travels with Charley (“John”, Gale Group). “Some readers have called Steinbeck’s work excessive, sentimental, shallow, pseudophilosophical, and stylistically uneven. However, as Steinbeck [says] in his Nobel Prize address, he [feels] called ‘to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit- for gallantry in defeat- for courage, compassion and love’ ” (Contemporary Classics)

So, it is in the end Steinbeck’s love for the common man and his courage, compassion, and love that makes him a truly American novelist. The recurrent themes in his works portray his pessimistic view of life, even though his characters are often full of hope and dreams. His use of language and the way he treats his subjects with dignity no matter their plight in life are only two of the reasons he is able to claim fame and honor.

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